Updated Feb 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Trump team cut ads too outrageous even for him

A screen shot shows one of the television campaign ads rejected by President Trump.
Screengrab from an unused Trump campaign ad. Obtained by Axios.

Donald Trump is going on trial tomorrow for outlandish behavior culminating with his alleged incitement of the Capitol riot, but some newly surfaced ads his campaign considered for the 2020 election were so far-fetched even he vetoed them.

Driving the news: One ad portrayed Joe Biden as a predator. Another took aim at his health, showing Biden coughing repeatedly at his podium. A third mocked CNN anchor Don Lemon, showing him slowly morph into a clown.

The big picture: The television and digital ads obtained by Axios ultimately were discarded for being "too hot," according to sources with direct knowledge of their history. The predator spot was a genre of ad that made Trump especially wary, the sources said.

  • It showed clips of women who accused Biden of inappropriate touching, paired with now-Vice President Kamala Harris saying, "I know a predator when I see one."
  • “He never wanted to run the predator or women's-style ads against Biden, because he was afraid he was going to open up his own can of worms,” one source close to the campaign told Axios, a sentiment another source confirmed.
  • The ad targeting Lemon, a favorite punching bag of the former president, focused on his coverage of Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

Behind the scenes: During the 2020 campaign, Trump's team made numerous videos — many sparked by young, pro-Trump fans who sent their ideas to former campaign manager Brad Parscale. He would then take them to the president for his approval.

  • A small group of top officials met with Trump a few times a month, usually in the White House dining room from 5 to 7 p.m., a source familiar with the meetings told Axios.
  • Parscale, who also was Trump's digital director, would connect his laptop to the TV above the fireplace. The officials then watched — and waited — for the former reality TV star's reaction.

Some of the ads made Trump "burst out laughing," the source said, but he'd tell the room they were too out there, even for him.

  • “He would wave, kind of wipe his hands with a smile, like, ‘God, guys.’ We would go further than him sometimes.”
  • Some ads didn't mesh well with his image, Trump would argue, while still others he felt weren't worth the backlash.
  • One series that centered on the BLM protests made Trump retort: “God, that's brutal, but I don't know if we can put it up.”

Trump always sat at the head of the table while viewing them, the source said. His social media director, Dan Scavino, sat in one corner, and Trump’s personal aide, Nick Luna, would sit in the opposite corner.

  • Parscale sat next to Trump, often so close it bothered the president, one source familiar with the meetings said.
  • Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, usually stood in the doorway, while White House chief of staff Mark Meadows popped in and out.

A White House butler would bring Trump a Diet Coke “every five minutes" during the viewing sessions, one of the sources told Axios.

  • The former president never ended up paying for the spots he rejected, the sources said.
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